December 1941: The United States Enters the Second World War

Welcome to another installment of World War 2 history!

Last time I wrote about Hitler’s surprise attack on the USSR, and how it drew Stalin into the war on the Allied side.

The United States was still technically neutral as 1941 drew to a close. After all, they had their President’s promise.

“I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

Franklin Delono Roosevelt’s Campaign address in Boston, Mass, October 30, 1940

See the source image
C’mon folks, is this a face that would lie?

In December of 1941, the United States still clung to FDR’s promise, to the hope that somehow they could stay out of the ’emergency’ over in Europe.

The people of the US were still recovering from the Great Depression. Memories of the horrors of the First World War lingered. Buffered by distance and the sheltering arms of two oceans, it seemed only sensible to let the rest of the world sort out its own problems.

Of course, there were those who disagreed.

Individuals, such as Bill Ash joined the conflict on their own. Various groups sent supplies to aid Great Britain and the USSR. The U.S. government wasn’t exactly neutral either.

The Lend-Lease Act, passed in March of 1941, allowed supplies and military aid such as weapons and vehicles to be sent overseas (without compensation) to nations deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” Beneficiaries included Great Britain, the USSR, China and Turkey.

Side note: FDR justified the plan by comparing it to lending a neighbor a ladder if his house was on fire- after all, you wouldn’t charge him! Senator Robert Taft noted that the act would also “give the President power to carry on a kind of undeclared war all over the world, in which America would do everything except actually put soldiers in the front-line trenches where the fighting is.” https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/lend-lease-act

Still, the American people, by and large, felt that their homeland was safe. Their news sources boasted that their Navy was the strongest in the world, and didn’t shy away from printing lists of all of the transfers of military personnel, and glowing, detailed descriptions of new military advancements.

See the source image
Read all about it! The handy guide to the new US dive-bombers and where you can find them!

Most of the news reports of the day focused on the Atlantic and the struggles in Europe. Japan seemed far distant- certainly not a dire threat to US security!

However, on December 5, 1941 the US and Japan were embroiled in neverending negotioations. Both sides said that they wished to stay at peace, though The US had been at odds with Japan since their invasion of China, had put embargoes in place, and was deeply concerned over troops massing in the area of Indochina.  The Japanese spokesmen insisted that they “desired no precipitate action”  and one, Nomura, insisted, “(A)s far as we are concerned, we are always willing to talk- after all, we are a friendly nation.” (Shirley 96)

In spite of these reassuring words, Japanese nationals were rapidly leaving the US and surrounding countries, and sailing back home.

FDR attempted to contact Emperor Hirohito directly on Saturday December 6th.

“I address myself to Your Majesty at this moment in the fervent hope that Your Majesty may, as I am doing, give thought in this definite emergency to ways of dispelling the dark clouds. I am confident that both of us, for the sake of the peoples not only of our own great countries but for the sake of humanity in neighboring territories, have a sacred duty to restore traditional amity and prevent further death and destruction in the world.” (Shirley 132)

It is uncertain whether the Emperor ever saw the telegram. In any case, it was too late.

[Pearl Harbor naval base and U.S.S. Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack]
Image courtesy of the US Library of Congress
Sunday, December 7th, at 7:55 am, the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, without a declaration of war.

More than 2300 Americans were killed.

12 ships were sunk or beached, including the U.S.S. Arizona (destroyed) and the U.S.S. Oklahoma (capsized.) Nine other ships were damaged.

160 aircraft were destroyed, 150 damaged.

The damage wasn’t limited to the States. Japanese forces also attacked Guam, the Phillipines, Wake Island and Midway Island.

The citizens of the United States were shocked. Outraged. Unified. Galvanized.

On that morning, everything changed.

If you have eight minutes, President Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war- the famous ‘day that will live in infamy’ speech- is worth a listen.

 

Thank you for visiting!

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

There are many, MANY excellent sources on this topic, which include more detail than I’ve provided in my little article.

My primary reading was from Craig Shirley’s December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World. Mr. Shirley goes through the month of December day by day, giving information as compiled from magazines and newspapers of the day. While it made slightly repetitive reading, it would be an invaluable resource for anyone writing fiction in this era. Mr. Shirley covers everything from the war to Hollywood to fashions and politics.

December 1941: The Month That Changed America And Saved The World

If you are looking for information online, here are a couple of resources:

General info: https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/december-07/

https://history.army.mil/books/wwii/Guard-US/ch7.htm

USS Arizona memorial: https://www.nps.gov/valr/faqs.htm

History blogs: https://pacificparatrooper.wordpress.com/?s=Pearl+Harbor

https://todayinhistory.blog/2017/12/07/december-7-1942-the-ship-that-wouldnt-die/

 

Also, if you are interested in my previous articles on World War 2, here are links to:

The Fall of France, The Battle of Britain, The Blitz,  North Africa and the Balkans, and North Africa Part 2

 

 

 

 

 

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23 Replies to “December 1941: The United States Enters the Second World War”

  1. Excellent post, brilliantly summarised. There is a school of thought that reckons Roosevelt made the decision that the US had no choice but to enter the war years earlier and that he greatly manipulated events; he was certainly an exceptional operator. One astonishing thing about the attack on Pearl Harbor is that it caught the US by surprise. The Japanese also bombed Hong Kong, then British, at the same time. Another astonishing thing was Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war on the States – it saved Roosevelt the trouble! With both the US and the USSR actively engaged against Hitler, it was no longer a question of whether the Nazis would be defeated, but when.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!
      It sure seems like Roosevelt may have known it was inevitable, just from reading his letters to Churchill. Politics though- there was a strong isolationist movement in the US, until Pearl Harbor, that is. (Only one member of Congress voted against going to war, and she was pretty well booed out of politics afterwards)
      Almost all of the memoirs of Americans that I’ve come across cite Pearl Harbor as their incentive for enlisting- I guess it was one way to unite everybody! 😦 It IS kind of amazing what a surprise the attack was in spite of the warning signs. Thanks for mentioning Hong Kong too- I intended to triple check that I didn’t miss anybody! I always knew about Pearl Harbor, but we don’t hear quite so much about all of the attacks that weren’t on US soil.
      Your last sentence reminds me of Churchill’s memoirs on the topic- sympathetic, but you can almost hear him smiling as he writes, because he knows that it’s only a matter of time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your write-ups are really good summations. Have you considered putting them together (with some editing, obviously) and attempting to sell them as “five-minute histories” or something similar? A collection of this kind I think might be useful!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “sheltering arms of two oceans”–lovely phrase! And Jon’s got a good point: you’ve a gift for covering major moments in depth without overwhelming the reader. A gathering of these wee histories is a pretty darn good idea…after the war’s over, mayhaps? 🙂 …..

    Liked by 1 person

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